Humans have dreamt of spaceflight since antiquity. The first recorded use of a rocket was by the Chinese in 1232 against the Mongol hordes – reports that ‘iron pots’ could be heard for 15 miles when they exploded upon impact. In 1250, the Norwegian Konungs skuggsjá mentioned the use of “coal and sulphur” as the best weapon for ship-to-ship combat. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) states that, “Rockets appear in Arab literature in 1258 AD, describing Mongol invaders’ use of them on February the 15th to capture the city of Baghdad. Quick to learn, the Arabs adopted the rocket into their own arms inventory and, during the Seventh Crusade, used them against the French Army of King Louis IX in 1268.” In 1261, Roger Bacon developed the correct formula for gunpowder by using 75 per cent saltpetre. Scientific and technological transaction has been fluid; gradual progress has been made through ‘tinkering’ rather than revolution, thus making rocket technology difficult to trace. However, in the latter half of the 20th century there was a significant turning point – rocket technology was developed to be powerful enough to overcome the force of gravity and open space to human exploration.
In 1903, Russian mathematics teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published the first serious scientific work on space travel. His work was essentially unknown outside the Soviet Union, but inside the country it inspired further research, experimentation and the formation of the Society for Studies of Interplanetary Travel in 1924. In 1912, across the Bering Strait, Robert Goddard began an analysis of rockets. He concluded three ways to improve conventional solid-fuel rockets and developed the mathematics of rocket flight, proving that a rocket would work in a vacuum. When published in 1920, Goddard’s ideas attracted worldwide attention and were openly both praised and ridiculed.
In the late 1950s these isolated advances in space technology became a dramatic arena for Cold War competition, which pitted the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union against each other. On the 4th of October 1957, a Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile launched Sputnik (“traveller”), the world’s first man-made object to be placed into the Earth’s orbit. In the US, space was seen as the next frontier; a logical extension of the grand American tradition of exploration. It was therefore crucial not to lose ground to the Soviets. In addition, this demonstration of the overwhelming power of the R-7 missile, seemingly capable of delivering a nuclear warhead into US air space, made gathering intelligence about Soviet military activities particularly urgent.
In 1958 the US launched Explorer I, designed by US Army under scientist Wernher von Braun. The President signed a public order creating NASA and two security-oriented programs were also set up to exploit the military potential of space and use satellites to gather intelligence. Nevertheless, in April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth. From 1961 to 1964, NASA’s budget was increased almost 500 per cent and launched Project Mercury.
On the 16th of July 1969, US astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins set off on the Apollo 11 space mission. On the 20th of July, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, famously calling the moment “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” With this, the US effectively won and astronauts came to be seen as the ultimate American heroes. In 1975, the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission astronauts officially greeted each other, with their “handshake in space” symbolising the gradual improvement in US-Soviet relations.
In the 21st century, focus has shifted to deep space. Just this year on the 14th of July, NASA’s New Horizons probe has lifted the veil on Pluto performing the first-ever flyby of the faraway dwarf planet, zooming within 7,800 miles of its surface. Space has not only become a frontier for the discovery of new knowledge, but despite discussions on the peaceful uses of space, it has become an extension of colonialism. This month, flowing water has been found on Mars. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has already voiced ideas to create a new Martian biosphere, using fusion bombs to blast the sky every few seconds, creating a temporary “sun” over each pole.
As we have tried to understand and control our environment on earth, we are seeking to control and understand our solar system, galaxy, and universe. Concepts found in films such as Interstellar are fast becoming a reality. In 2004, Virgin CEO Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic dedicated to providing commercial space travel. Despite tragedy in 2014 when the fourth rocket powered test flight broke apart in mid-air, Virgin have continued to facilitate this new form of conspicuous consumption. Space travel is to replace the yacht and private jet of today.
The cosmos is becoming a space in which large themes of human history are being played out – an extension of the arena of human triumphs and struggles.